It was raining today so our bear cruise was a little less eventful, bears are not really too excited about rain, no one is really. However, we did manage to find a snowy owl perched along the rocky shore of Hudson Bay.
Snowy owls are actually one of the most exciting and notable sightings up here. I would say even more exciting than bears for long-time guides. They are elusive and difficult to stalk. You only have about three chances after they initially ‘stare you down’.
Their eyes do not move in their sockets like ours do, so you can tell ‘exactly’ when an owl is watching you. That being said, even when they turn their head, you know they are still thinking about you, noting your distance and calculating how fast you are approaching. When they are staring at you, their vision is like that of binoculars; their eyes absorbing more light than ours and their vision ‘overlaps’ creating what we believe is a ‘targeted’ effect. Don’t ever think you will ‘sneak up’ on an owl.
Snowy owls first appear as a little blip on a rock, an abnormal piece of snow. After a few years of guiding, you can pick them out pretty well but, at first glance, its easy to miss them. Their camoflauge is not just adapted to an arctic winter but also to the greywacke rocks of Hudson Bay it seems.
Basically, you just have to take your time approaching them. Enjoy the sighting and then try to pick out a little gully or some rocks to hid behind. Even then, you have to time your approach to their scans. Snowy owls are always watching and if you make a mistake and move forward while they are staring you down, they will ruffle their feathers and fly away after only a couple of steps.
Ruffled feathers are always a sign that you are ‘on the clock’. If you can stay perfectly still for quite some time, you can keep her there a bit longer but it usually means that you should just be happy where you are and get ready to take a shot of her flying away.
Even if you time your approach while they are looking in the other direction, stopping at each turn of their head, they are still aware of the change in distance. Anything closer than 60 metres is pretty tough with these birds, that seems to be their limit of comfort. We got lucky this time, using a rock face to slowly (painfully slowly) get within about 40 metres. But, even as we peaked above the ridge, the owl already had locked in on us and there was only time for a few pictures before she flew to a new perch and regained her ‘safety zone’.
It seems to be a big year for snowy owls, with many sightings far to the north of their normal range. This usually happens after a peak lemming cycle in the arctic. During these times, owls may successfully raise twice or three times as many young as normal.
The owl population, along with many others such as wolves and foxes, increases with the rodents and then once the crash happens, the predators start fanning out in search of other food sources. For many of these creatures, it is a search that does not end well.
This owl, however, looked to be a fairly healthy, large female, showing the black speckled look of females and juveniles but maybe a bit too large to be immature (at least in my opinion). Snowy owls are one of the largest owls in North America with the females being significantly larger than the pure white males, weighing an average of 2.3 kilograms versus 1.8.
Feathers cover the entire bird, including their feet, providing a thick layer of insulation that maintains their body temperature throughout the arctic winter. Only in the worst blizzards will snowy owls take shelter behind a rock or a cement-hardened snowdrift. Of course, that being said, snowy owls are not particularly ‘thrilled’ with the rainy days of October and like all of us other creatures, are waiting for the rain and sleet to turn to snow.